When a Good Adventure Goes Bad
Anything Worth Doing: A True Story of Adventure, Friendship and Tragedy on the Last of the West’s Great Rivers
By Jo Deurbrouck
197 pgs., Sundog Book Publishing, $15
Those of us who pursue adventure and challenge in nature sometimes cross a line into a place where life becomes fragile. But as the unfortunate who have stumbled inadvertently into that dark space learn, the threshold is never actually a distinct line; it’s a gray zone where we make a series of fateful decisions and are never granted the foresight to know what awaits at the end of them. In Anything Worth Doing, former whitewater rafting guide Jo Deurbrouck takes the reader on a riveting journey into the lives of two semi-legendary Idaho river guides, showing how a life lived well can sometimes end too soon.
As with any well-told tale about tragedy, this National Outdoor Book Award winner is more about its fascinating, offbeat main characters than it is about an accident. Deurbrouck’s story pulls back the curtain on the amusingly eccentric sub-culture of river guides to which the two men belonged (one still does)—people who may be unmatched in their passion for their activity and willingness to live the most marginal existence in order to spend a cumulative several months on rivers every year. (Okay, maybe the most committed dirtbag climbers and ski bums rival river guides; the point is arguable, but I’m not crawling into that scrum here.)
Doerbrouck portrays Jon Barker, a young man in this story and still a guide today (his company is Barker River Expeditions), as so fanatical about kayaking whitewater that he vows to run 20 new stretches of river every year—even if it requires bushwhacking and dragging his kayak through shallows on creeks most kayakers would never bother with. Barker’s partner in river zealotry is Clarence “Clancy” Reece, a generation Barker’s senior, a big, working-class guy from North Idaho, a former boxer, wrestler, and ballet dancer, something of a recluse, and an early pioneer in the Gem State’s whitewater rafting industry.
The book’s title comes from the credo Barker and Reece shared, which reveals much about the men: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
Most of the narrative’s first half details the pair’s 900-mile journey in Reece’s handmade wooden dory from the headwaters of the Salmon River to the Pacific Ocean. In many respects two very different journeys, it begins on the 425 miles of untamed Salmon, which carves a mile-deep canyon through Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48. The second segment of their odyssey unfurls tediously and miserably on the Columbia, once the West’s greatest river, but for decades now a series of reservoirs separated by dams. There, the two battle brutal headwinds and dodge massive ships that could turn their matchbox boat to matchsticks.
But the tale gathers class V velocity in its second half, with the story of Reece and Barker’s scheme to tackle the Salmon during a period of dangerously high water, hoping to set a 24-hour speed record.
As someone who’s primarily a hiker and climber and most comfortable on terra firma, whitewater intimidates me—making this book, for me, both anxiety provoking and almost impossible to put down. I also know the deep and abiding pain of losing a friend to an accident in the wilderness—and what it’s like to not just be there during the incident, but to have been the one whose idea catalyzed the events that led to the climbing accident that took my good friend’s life. Deurbrouck’s depiction of Barker and Reece and their mad-capped adventures is as clear-eyed and nonjudgmental a tutorial as I have ever read on how joyful, liberating enthusiasm can spin 180 degrees to debilitating horror and grief.
Deurbrouck dares to explore the sentiment that experienced adventurers know but don’t often like to acknowledge—perhaps for fear of jinxing themselves, or simply out of pure denial, because to admit that disaster can visit even the best among us is to acknowledge your own frightening vulnerability to misjudgment and bad luck.
In the Preface, after relating a chilling anecdote of a client getting thrown from her raft, she tells how she heard the news of Reece’s death—and how the tightly knit guiding community reacted. Deurbrouck writes (referring to Reece with the guides’ term of respect, “dinosaur”): “Extreme high water or not, the news didn’t make sense. Rivers are notorious for slamming the foolish ass over teakettle and even more notorious for giving the undeserving a pass. But although we all paid lip service to water’s caprice, none of us believed in our hearts that rivers killed the respectful, which we all said we were, and especially not the consummately skilled, which is what it meant to say the man was a dinosaur. Maybe we even thought the river might respect such an oarsman in return.”
These stories can touch us personally, and that is true for me on multiple levels with Anything Worth Doing.
In the relatively small universe comprising the population of outdoor recreationists in Idaho, I have actually run into both Jo Deurbrouck and Jon Barker. Deurbrouck and I met at a book event after we both won National Outdoor Book Awards in 2012 (hers for this book, mine an honorable mention for Before They’re Gone). Barker I met literally in passing. A few years ago, in early May, three friends and I took an eight-day kayaking trip through the sheer-walled canyons of the upper Owyhee River in Idaho and Oregon. Although not as long or as storied as the Salmon, the Owyhee deserves ranking among the West’s last great wild rivers.
We encountered not another person the entire time, until the last evening. As we sat around our riverside, gravel-bed campsite, a solo kayaker paddled past us, appearing and disappearing within maybe 30 seconds—and looking just as shocked to see us as we were to see him. We exchanged friendly waves as the river whisked him past us. One of my companions said, “That was Jon Barker.”
As good fortune and odd coincidence would have it, a friend of mine scored a much-coveted private permit to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon this June—the odds of which are something like 200 to one. He invited my family to join his party. Depending on winter and spring snows and temperatures, the Middle could be merely exciting or very high and dangerous in the third week of June. If it’s the latter, my wife and I will elect to forego this rare opportunity. We’ve grown more cautious over the years. Being a parent and having seen someone die in the wilderness both do that to you.
I wish I had saved reading Anything Worth Doing for our trip on the Middle. But if we go, I’ll bring it along and hand it off to whomever in our group is intrigued by the subject matter and tempted by the strong recommendation I’ll give.
A story that’s both cautionary and inspirational, Anything Worth Doing should be required reading for any young person who slips inside a whitewater kayak—or climbing shoes, for that matter. But it will captivate anyone who finds peace in the sight of a mountain skyline, a bottomless canyon, or a flowing river.
Buy Anything Worth Doing: A True Story of Adventure, Friendship and Tragedy on the Last of the West’s Great Rivers.
Find out more about Jo Deurbrouck’s work and book at jodeurbrouck.com.